YOU BET YOUR LIFE!
Isaiah 55: 1-9
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
March 24, 2019
…for my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.
God, in other words, is not a jazzed up version of us! Blaise Pascal had it right: believing in this God whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are beyond our ways has to be the greatest wager we could ever bet. We are betting our life on the belief that God is.
Of course, NOT believing in God is also a wager, and because all the so-called proofs for God’s existence have their own fallacies, we have long ago abandoned any great emphasis on trying to prove the existence of God. So what can a mere sermon add to our thoughts about believing in God?
At the outset, a sermon can say that arguments for believing in God are not of great concern in the Bible. After all, the Bible could have begun with something like this: “In the beginning, there were certain theories about the existence of God…..” But no—the Bible starts with a great leap of faith: In the beginning, God. Never a single explanation for why we should believe in God, just the assumption that God is.
Even the book of Job, the story of a man who endured what from our perspective would provide ample reason to deny the existence of God, never even raises that question! And what about the disciples of Jesus? Why didn’t his disciples say, “How can there be a God when an innocent and good man like Jesus is crucified?” But no, we look in vain through the writings of the gospels for any hint of doubt about the existence of God.
Later, when the early church was enduring sporadic and brutal persecution, when the Roman government clamped down on this new religion and Emperor Nero unjustly accused the Christians for the great fire of Rome, not one time did anyone raise the God question!
Now let’s go a step further. Assuming that God is, I would imagine that God is not very concerned about our attempts to prove or disprove God’s existence. What difference would it make to God? Would it bother you if a colony of ants organized a conference to debate your existence?
While it may not make any difference to God that we carry on such debates, it does to us. We care because we like to think that we are completely rational. We are convinced that rationality is a virtue right up there with faith, hope, and love, and that to be rational is one of the great goals of life.
So we have good and honest people who conclude that because we cannot rationally prove the existence of God, they will therefore choose not to believe in God. OK—I respect that, as long as the atheist admits that non-belief is also a leap of faith. Both atheism and theism are acts of faith!
When the believer in God dies, an autopsy will not reveal that person’s faith. And when an atheist dies, an autopsy will not reveal that person’s passion for rational proof. Some things are not found by scientific examination. We are like kindergarten children trying to spell God with the wrong blocks. We can never spell God with the blocks of logic, for God is not a theorem to be tested; we can never spell God with the blocks of physical science, for God is not an object to be studied. God cannot be spelled with the blocks of philosophical argument, for God is not a proposition to be defended.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor my ways your ways, says the Lord.
Now let’s go a step further and say that belief in God is not necessarily tied to happiness. There are those who argue that to believe in God always leads to happiness. But let’s think about that. We are in the midst of Lent. Lent is not what we would call a happy season: it emphasizes things like the reality of suffering, injustice, and death. It calls on people to repent and to sacrifice, even if it is a symbolic sacrifice like giving up asparagus for Lent! Lent is not really a time to celebrate happiness. But it is a very important time of the year, and the church calendar recognizes that.
One of the healthy aspects of the season of Lent is that it gives us a structured time to recognize that people aren’t always glowing with happiness. Anyone can recognize that and embrace it as ordinary. To believe in God does not mean that we get up every morning singing, “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go!” Ordinary life has its ups and downs, and this season recognizes that and embraces it in the calendar.
Faith in God does not guarantee happiness, but neither does atheism guarantee happiness. An atheist has concluded that there is no transcendence, no help out there beyond ourselves. There is no life other than the physical.
Now, where does that leave us? We have said that the Bible does not argue for the existence of God, and we have said that belief in God does not guarantee happiness. So what can we do if we find ourselves struggling with belief in God? What if we find ourselves debating the whole idea of God as we see such undeserved suffering in the world. What can we do?
I want to propose that during this season of Lent we try giving up something. I’m not talking about giving up something we like to eat. I’m talking about something much deeper than that. I am suggesting that for the remainder of Lent we give up our struggle with God. Just give it up! You can always pick it up again after Easter and keep struggling! But for a few weeks, at least, give up the tug of war with God and let go of the rope! Just give up the struggle and wait! Maybe we have been trying too hard in our efforts to find God. Maybe Lent would be a good time to slow down and give up the struggle, at least for a while. Some of us may need a vacation from the struggle!
When C.S. Lewis wrote that classic book of Christian faith entitled Surprised by Joy, he could have given it the title, “Surprised by Happiness”—but he didn’t. And he didn’t for good reason. He knew that Christian faith was not so much about happiness; it was about joy, which is much deeper. Joy does not ignore the struggle, pain, and sorrow; in fact, joy is sometimes found even in the midst of those things we dread.
In Lent we recognize and institutionalize that truth. We follow the footsteps of Jesus through the agony and suffering of life, and in doing so we are surprised by nothing less than joy. Is that a good wager? You bet your life it is!